The following essay should be read in conjunction with viewing the
World War II art of Harold A. Laynor on display in this museum.
The essay endeavors
to put a special group of American fighting men, the little known
"Ghost Army of World War II," into historical perspective.
Harold Laynor was one of those troops. He realized as a pre teen
that he wanted to be an artist, and he took to its study by his
high school years. He graduated from the Parsons School of Design
in New York City and was awarded a year of art study in Paris. But
WWII interrupted his plans and in 1942 he enlisted in the United
States Army. He was twenty. He did not get to Paris that year, but
he did get to France right after D Day and served on or near the
front lines until Germany fell in May, 1945. The Ghost Army is not
only little known, it is also unique in the history of American
warfare in that it was a battlefront battalion composed largely
of artists, sculptors, architects, literary figures and others from
the arts and humanities. Many of the new recruits were already famous;
others would win celebrity stripes after the war. They included
Olin Dows, a prominent artist and personal friend of President Franklin
D. Roosevelt; Bill Blass, a fashion designer of worldwide acclaim;
Elsworth Kelly, whose paintings hang in the Museum of Modern Art
and the Metropolitan; George Diestel, a Hollywood set designer;
Art Kane, a fashion photographer; and Harold A. Laynor, whose works
show in galleries all around the country, including the Museum of
Modern Art, and whose many distinctions include the prestigious
Louis Comfort Tiffany Award.
makeup of the group was a deliberate effort to concentrate bright
people together so they could feed off each other's imaginations
and come up with new and better ways to deceive the enemy. Deception
was their way of life. Pretending they were someone else was always
their foremost activity. Sometimes this required individuals to
play particular roles, but usually the unit passed itself off as
some other outfit. Customarily this called for front-line presence,
so they were as battle scarred as the troops they impersonated.
Their special "artistic" makeup, and their front-line
experience, combined to make their battalion the most unusual "deception"
unit in military history to that time. The story of the Ghost Army
remained under the cloak of government secrecy until about two decades
ago. Watergate so alarmed Americans that the Freedom of Information
Act, of little effect until then, was greatly strengthened and allowed
determined parties to search records previously guarded against
prying eyes. Engrossing tales about wartime activities slowly began
to emerge from the vast storehouses of government records.
nothing has been written about the Ghost Army. The Smithsonian of
April, 1985, carried an article by Edward Parks, "A phantom
division played a role in Germany's defeat," but it just hints
at the full scope of the unit's history. That story remains buried
in government depositories. Unfortunately, some of Laynor's personal
war records have been lost, so his paintings must give sole testimony
to his own experiences. Hopefully, some young scholars will take
up this search and interview the Ghost Army's rapidly depleting
rank of survivors. The unprecedented role of the Ghost Army joined
in a deliberate fashion two age-old phenomena, artists in warfare
and deception in warfare. A thorough search in English-language
literature reveals that these topics have not been blended together
in monographic studies. There just is no corpus of works dealing
with the topic. That leaves only primary materials and incidental
passages in secondary works. Fortunately, the Arizona State University
Hayden Library has enough of those vital records to support the
story told in the following essay.
offers an opportunity to explore many aspects of war and culture.
There is art itself, of course, and Laynor's sketches, watercolors,
oils and acrylics portray the messy and gritty little details of
army life. They reveal to viewers the range of feelings experienced
by soldiers, from bravery to fear, from joy to despair, from energy
to exhaustion, etc.
see a wide variety in his style. Was that an aspect of the uncertainties
of life in the "trenches?" His work is sometimes reminiscent
of Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe," and at other times
impressionistic and abstract. But keep in mind the artist's work
is only the first step in the process of art; the viewer's reaction
is the equally important concluding step. An observer, of course,
will judge the artist's technical competence. That being acceptable,
the viewer should endeavor to get into the artist's mind, and applying
one's own subjective feelings to the "art" of viewing
can only do that. The viewer's aesthetic experience is highly personal,
and emotional as well as intellectual. Once made with a work of
art, and then, voila, "a shock of recognition" occurs.
So, art, by definition is interactive. Participate! The whole endeavor
ought to be pleasurable as well as informative. This essay is in
an early stage. It will grow as I am able to examine more intimate
sources. I hope it may be profitably read in its present form before,
during or after viewing the exhibit. A field quite so virgin has
no orthodoxy, no clearly marked paths, so be your own guide as you
travel through this dimly lit domain of artists and deception and
warfare. Historians are like fireflies. We carry our illumination
devices on our rear ends, so we see better in retrospect than in
prospect. We may not know where we're going, but we think we know
something about where we've been. Let me test that notion by looking
back into history and see if I can shine some retrospective light
for you in the following essay on the strange odyssey of the Ghost
William W. Phillips
May 20, 1996
THE GHOST ARMY
OF WORLD WAR II
Warfare and art inflame human passions. They combined in World War
II to produce one of history's most unusual combat units, the 23rd
Headquarters Special Troops, known quite privately by its members
as "The Ghost Army."
always requires perspective, so, to get The Ghost Army in focus,
it is necessary to examine how warfare, art and deception have intertwined
in the past. The past is always prologue, and must be carefully
studied before subsequent events can be understood. Warfare is almost
as old as man himself, far older than history. There are fifteen
thousand-year old archaeological relics such as walled communities
and busted skulls that clearly indicate war was waged that long
ago. Cave art depicting war may be up to thirty-five thousand years
old. That still leaves no record for the million or so years that
man has been cavorting around with his present physiological makeup.
Some variety of war probably took place during most of that period.
shaped the broad outlines of history. Empires were founded on conquest:
Sumeria, Macedonia, Rome, Charlemagne, Great Britain, Napoleon,
etc. National borders have depended more upon war than upon nationality;
look at the mess in old Yugoslavia. War established American independence
and ended slavery in the United States. Hitler tried to establish
a thousand year Reich by military might, and the Soviets threatened
nuclear disaster in their drive to communize the world. Most present
day values held dear by civilization were established or preserved
by combat. The liberties that Americans presently treasure were
saved by victory in WWII. Wars, in fact, have defined most nations
writing about 3100 BC; with it came the beginning of record keeping
and of formal history. From that time to the present warfare has
been a constant. Throughout history, man has judged that war's benefits
outweighed its cost, so almost every generation everywhere that
civilization took root has experienced the death and destruction
of war. Every argument that war is evil has been countered with
positive claims. History has honored war's participants and their
goals. There are museums all over the world dedicated to wars and
weapons. War memorials and cemeteries have become sacred ground.
Religions throughout time have exalted sacrifice, an idea that was
easily blended into rationalizations for killing and dying in combat.
Indeed, falling in battle guaranteed salvation in many religious
portrayed warriors as honorable and dignified, as the best that
the human race produces. Sargon II's siege of Khorsabal (about 720
BC) is heroically depicted in statuary, and rock carvings from 400
BC in Asia Minor show massed infantry in gallant pose. Ancient vases
and sarcophagi are emblazoned with battle scenes. Mosaics, tapestries,
illustrated manuscripts and oils carrying pictures of men in war
came in medieval times. The artists who produced these works were
generally engaged and treated munificently by rulers or wealthy
patrons. Alexander The Great, for example, bestowed abundant favors
upon artists who honored his splendid military conquests. The works
of these "commissioned" artists have been largely commemorative,
but sometimes the "accidental" artist, without commission,
has almost touched infinity in reaching for the human soul. See,
for example, Goya's Disasters of War and Picasso's Guernica. One
"feels" as well as "sees" such work. Viewers
of Laynor's WWII art should endeavor both to feel and see his works.
What made war
seem worthwhile these past five thousand years? Motives have been
varied, but the ones that repeat over and over are: empire building,
devotion to ideas and leaders, spoils, and notions of superiority.
Generally, as societies have grown in numbers and knowledge, the
weapons of war have become more deadly, and this, too, has its devastation.
This in turn
sponsored anti-war feelings, which many in this century embrace
deeply. But these are rather recent developments; "peace"
movements did not really get a firm hold until Hugo Grotius, a Dutch
humanist of the early seventeenth century, published his famous
treatise, On the Law of War and Peace. Unfortunately, peace became
something that was pursued ardently only during peacetime; during
wartime it became the future condition that the victors would fasten
upon the vanquished. Thus far its advocates have shown no revolutionary
results. WWII brought death to about fifty million people; approximately
the same number have died in war since 1945. Do these figures speak
of any real progress towards lasting peace? Maybe so, at least the
major powers have restrained themselves in the last fifty years.
And, unlike the League of Nations, the United Nations has survived
all challenges to date. Could it be that General William Tecumseh
Sherman's words near the end of his life are taking ho1d?
"I am tired and sick of war, its glory is all, moonshine .
. . war is hell."
Look carefully again at Laynor's works. Are they more suggestive
of hell, or of glory? Do they make a statement for war, or for peace?
Beyond the fact
of war itself is the matter of how certain aspects of it are prosecuted.
These must be surveyed to establish the Ghost Army's place in history.
From time immemorial,
warriors have endeavored to deceive each other. At first the deception
consisted of innovative strategic and tactical maneuvers that were
designed to outwit and overwhelm foes. Hannibal's crossing the Alps
and then duping Rome's legions with brilliant maneuvers both stand
as some of history's foremost military deceptions. Of equal rank
is the pretended retreat of the Norman cavalry during the Battle
of Hastings. Ancients used plaster dummies, the Chinese even articulated
them, to deceive or frighten enemies. Infiltration of fortresses
(Designed by architects, the invisible war artists!) almost became
an art form as it called forth the most imaginative deceptions.
Every school child knows about the Trojan Horse, but scores of other
devices were also employed to "sneak" into fortified places,
or to employ new ways of attack from without. Imagine the terror
when defenders first faced siege towers and weapons that propelled
As the centuries
passed, ever more inventive means of trickery were devised. The
Indians of North America refined their clever guerrilla strategies
with real and fake smoke signals, and radio provided the same opportunity
in the wars of this century. Generally, every technological advance
brought with it new ways to deceive enemies.
The notion of
spying is one of the oldest deceptions. Spies have been used it
seems forever. During the American Civil War some of the most effective
spies were actors who had permits to pass between North and South
as traveling companies went on national tour. Making war in general,
and spying in particular, has largely been the domain of men. However,
throughout history, some of the most successful and notorious spies
have been women. Too, starting primarily in the nineteenth century,
women begin to appear in small numbers as war artists, usually away
from the field of battle.
Use of secret
codes has been around as long as spying. Artists were sometimes
the devisers of codes or other secret ways to convey messages. Spies,
of course, also tried to bust codes. Just as finding out the enemy's
secrets was important, so was providing false information to the
enemy. This was done in thousands of ways, many of which involved
artists, such as posters falsely indicating that a particular unit
was off on a three-day pass, or one welcoming a non-existent unit,
etc. This sort of manipulation of reality is called "disinformation."
Benjamin Franklin used it in the Revolutionary War when he planted
a phony news item that was aimed at American loyalists, telling
about how Indians, under direction from the British, scalped fetuses
they pulled from the wombs of American women. Whole cloth! As noted
earlier, war has been accepted through the centuries because people
have embraced the idea that its benefits outweigh its costs. In
part this is true because many desirable social conditions are undeniably
the result of war, such as American independence. It is true, too,
that war brings people together in a more profound way than almost
any other human activity, allowing, nay, demanding them to express
a "oneness," an "us against them" mentality
that serves to define who they are and what they stand for.
War has been
accepted, too, because it has been expertly popularized and glorified.
Its victors have been honored as heroes. Kings and commanders from
ancient times, well pleased with their own worthiness, commissioned
artists to do gallant paintings and statues. These were almost always
executed after the war, and showed their subjects in courageous
and magnificent poses. Breasts were bedecked with medals, and reproduced
in art. Great cities around the world are display cases for statues
of men in war. Mounted generals seem to be an American favorite.
Museums house the work of unnumbered artists who have depicted war
scenes. The blend is sort of elevated to the higher reaches of the
mind when authors write of the "art" of war, and there
are hundreds of books that play upon that title, commencing notably
and suitably with The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a fourth century BC
Kings and commanders
quickly went beyond using artists just in a romantic manner after
the battle and came to realize that artists also could play a role
during the battle. With paintings and posters they could build esprit
de corps and spread propaganda. Attached to combat units they could
raise morale, help elevate the fighting spirit.
By the 19th
century this modern role was universally recognized. And then a
new dimension was created when the Englishman, Roger Fenton, began
the documentary tradition with his startling photographs of the
Crimean War. Soon thereafter, Matthew Brady and others produced
thousands of remarkable photographs of the American Civil War. A
new field of art was born out of the crucible of war. For the first
time, people back home were presented current depictions of war.
Previously, the artists' renditions, after the fact, tended to be
romantic and show the glorious and heroic aspects of warfare. Look
over the art of war before the last century and one will not find
much gore or suffering; instead, one finds the stuff that makes
young hearts beat patriotically and long for the opportunity to
shine in battle. Realism comes with modern warfare, though, and
artists generally, not only photographers, now depict gore as much
America's first century of warfare also provided an inviting series
of venues for the graphic arts. This field had first blossomed in
America with Benjamin Franklin's innovative use of woodcut engravings
to illustrate news stories. It prospered later with the invention
of lithography and telegraphy and the development and installation
of first-rank, continuous-feed printing presses.
Clarence P. Hornung and Fridolf Johnson, the authors of 200 Years
of American Graphic Art, the graphic arts in America "have
alternately reached high levels of excellence and descended to deep
troughs of tastelessness." During those periods of distinction,
the graphics were exuberant and optimistic, portraying America as
the finest product of human endeavor. Handbills and broadsides drummed
up opposition to the British on the eve of the Revolutionary War,
and Paul Revere's copper engraving of the Boston Massacre was the
most famous print of the whole era. During the War of 1812, when
many Americans did not have strong "us-against-them" feelings,
poster art attained one of its highs and helped hold enough Americans
together to frustrate Great Britain's design to reclaim its colonies
and change the Atlantic Ocean back into King George's Lake. But
the art then descended into a trough, only to reemerge during the
Civil War with some of its finest work ever. Harper's Weekly led
the way with front-page woodcuts glorifying the Union cause. These
had the happy, unanticipated effect of driving advertising off the
front and cover pages of newspapers and magazines. Thomas Nast emerged
at this time as America's foremost cartoonist, and young Winslow
Homer became "America's Artist" with his glorious array
of sensitive sketches, woodcuts and oils.
into the most secret places of the human mind, places where pride
reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct dwells. These
are the same places that art reaches, so it was only to be expected
that warfare and art would blend harmoniously. Sun Tzu held that
war and life are guided by the same laws and principles; the "stuff"
of war and life are the same, he affirmed. The notion has been reaffirmed
frequently through the centuries since, with von Clausewitz in the
early eighteen hundreds making perhaps its most acclaimed modern
formulation. Those who deal with art and war treat them not as isolated
happenings, but as aspects of man's total universe. They simultaneously
occupy the same ground. Because of this historic commingling, it
is difficult to understand how survey accounts in both fields have
almost completely ignored the other. Through the centuries artists
have depicted war scenes; but historians of art rarely mention war.
The reverse is equally true, as one must search carefully through
histories of war for any recognition of art, even in those works
that are richly illustrated with paintings and photographs.
One of the places
art and warfare meet is in that part of the mind where myths reside.
War has always given rise to myths. For example: that Cossacks were
born to freedom; that Indians were savages, later revised to noble
savages; that God favored conquerors; that the crusades were commissioned
by God; that the American "boy" was the world's finest
soldier; etc. All of these, and uncounted other myths born of war,
have been immortalized by artists.